Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

We make a lot of assumptions that we believe are true. That life will get better. That our children will have more than we did. That every kid should go to college and achieve all their dreams. That technology will solve our ecological problems. That humanity is destined to spread across space and colonize the galaxy. Overall, we think positive and assume we have unlimited potential. But what if these are false assumptions?

Today on Mike Brotherton’s Facebook page he linked to “Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says.” Brotherton is a professor of science and a science fiction author and he didn’t like what Michel Mayor said about our chances of interstellar travel. Whenever scientists, including some science fiction fans, question our final frontier destiny, many science fiction fans will quote Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s their trump card to play against any skepticism about an unlimited future. The common assumption among science fiction fans is we’re destined to colonize the galaxy and we’ll overcome all the obstacles of physics to do so. There are no limits to our hubris. I had faith in that space travel destiny when I was young but I’m losing it in my old age.

What if belief in a Star Trek destiny is delusional? What if our species is destined to always live on Earth, or maybe colonize Mars, a few moons, and build some space habitats? Why is it so important to believe we’ll eventually create a galactic civilization? Why is it so important to believe humans have unlimited potential when everything in this reality has limitations? Are science fiction fans behaving like the faithful believing in miracles?

The more we study the problems of space travel the more it seems an unlikely enterprise for biological creatures. However, space seems perfect for robots with artificial intelligence. Maybe our children won’t colonize space, but our digital descendants will.

If you study history it’s obvious that things constantly change. Even in my life much has changed. It’s hard to predict anything. I replied to Brotherton that I thought the odds are 99.99999% we won’t colonize exoplanets. He said, show my work. I wish I could. I’m not like Mayor, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but my hunch is it’s very unlikely. I’m not good at math, but I think my reply suggests 1 chance in 100,000,000. One in a hundred million events happen. It’s like winning a big lottery. So maybe, I was being overly optimistic. I probably should have added two or three more nines. All I can say is after a lifetime of reading about how hard interstellar travel will be, and how hard it is for the human body to adapt to an environment that it wasn’t designed for, my gut hunch is our species is destined to live out its entire existence on Earth. That means most space opera is no more scientific than Tolkien.

I feel that’s a crushing thought to science fiction fans. I assume it’s like Christians hearing from atheists that God and heaven don’t exist. I didn’t take to Christianity when growing up but embraced science fiction as my religion. I’m now becoming an atheist to my religion. However, I am getting old, and skepticism clouds my thoughts. I no longer believe free-market capitalism is sustainable. I no longer believe every kid should go to college. I no longer believe our children should be bigger consumers than we were. Our species is very adaptable. I think whatever changes increased CO2 brings we’ll adapt. I also believe our human nature doesn’t change, so I also expect we’ll keep consuming everything in sight even though it will lead to our self-destruction.

We’re about to reach the limits of growth by our current methods of growing. That doesn’t mean we won’t adapt to a new way of growing. If the world doesn’t need seven billion people with college degrees we’ll find out what it does need. If Earth can’t handle seven billion people all living the American standard of living, we’ll adapt to something new too. Humans might even adapt to living in microgravity or in lower and higher 1G gravity. We might even create life extension or cold sleep allowing for slow travel to the stars. It’s technically possible to get humans to another star system, but the odds are going to be tremendous. It’s not a given. I don’t think Mike Brotherton realized a 99.99999% chance is like a person winning a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. It has happened.

Quoting Clarke’s Third law is no more valid than saying “Believing in Jesus will get you to heaven.” Faith does not change reality. Clarke’s laws aren’t science, but hunches, like my figure of doubt. From everything we know now, migrating to other planets is an extreme long shot. We can’t calculate the odds, but any figure we give should be daunting. Anyone assuming it’s 100% to happen is in just as much scientific statistical trouble as saying it’s a 100% chance it won’t happen.

I’m just a doubter. In my old age, I realize now that if science fiction wanted to be more positive, more enlightened, and more encouraging, it should imagine how our species could live on Earth without going anywhere. Even if a few of us go to the stars, most of us will stay here. Dreaming of greener pastures on the far side of Orion might not be our ultimate destiny. Maybe our final frontier is figuring out how to live on Earth.

JWH

 

12 thoughts on “Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong”

  1. Hey, James….
    Another excellent piece of sincere self-examination.
    “They” like to tell us–or at least, a long time ago, back when we were kids–that the only stupid question is the one never asked. So you and I both have asked our fair share of questions over the years. What “they” never warned us about was the danger of questioning those answers. I mean, it was supposed to all be so simple, right? Ask this person or that because, after all, he/she is the “expert”. “They” are those “authority figures” to whom we are all expected to yield, to obey, for no more noble of a reason than “they” have the “formal education,” “they” were “chosen by God,” and so on until I want to scream, and often do so at midnight, under the full moon. It hardly matters how you break it down, it is always, always a someone else to whom you and I are expected to defer.
    And then you start to become older. I mean, you find yourself being that old man you used to see, sitting on a park bench, shaking his head slowly, side-to-side, and muttering to himself as he feeds the squirrels. It took him a lifetime, but he finally achieved his personal Satori.
    Since I am the guy who, for better or worse, began tracking, monitoring, and documenting these little demons of everyday life a long, long time ago, I said it this way back on Friday 03/19/10:
    “Nihilism had reared its ugly head…search for meaning and purpose…surrender to God…make a deal with the Devil…break the deal, reclaim that soul, then proclaim neutrality in a world which demands the taking of sides. Add to that an equal measure of insomnia. Bake for decades in the hottest flames of hell. Then cool in the Ninth Center of Hell. Voila! Nihilism.”
    It is the word you used, one I rarely encounter anywhere these days: Hubris.
    So I remember being that young lad, sitting in the barber chair in the ’50s, getting that cool “flat-top” hair-cut and scanning the science magazines, reading about the impending ice age, how we were all destined to freeze to death and, don’t forget, by the year 2000, humans would average 7′ tall and be completely hairless. And now it is 2019 and global warming will be end of life as we know it and, just for fun, obesity is now the perfectly normal condition for the human animal.
    And then I remember that famous list of “Seven Deadly Sins” and the first is always…Pride. Again, your word: Hubris.
    So if it is that the story of “God” is indeed all pure myth, maybe, just maybe, it came about because a couple of old guys were sitting around, having this very discussion, talking about the human animal, always so self-confident, so filled with “pride,” that well, “Dammit, one of these days, we’ll go to the stars, hell, we’ll live in Utopia” (“too soon from the cave, too far from the stars,” as Mr. Huxley described it), but really getting nowhere very fast.
    All good and noble intentions aside, and putting aside those technological advances, what has really changed since the beginning of recorded human history? All remains the tragic-comedy of man’s inhumanity to man, or war and violence. People once turned to “God” to save them. Modern man has placed his in faith in technology, in himself. And I cannot begin to imagine a more frightening “God,” period.
    So if one day humans do start taking off to other planets, the real reason will be because it will be just a handful who have said, “To hell with life on this planet. I’m outta here.” And then what will happen? It will be the same madness simply playing out somewhere else.
    Me? I’m gonna continue to sit on the park-bench and feed the squirrels….
    James, stay safe and be well.
    Wait. To sorta kinda change the subject. A serious question:
    Did anyone in your life, ever, tell you “you think too much”?

    1. Randy, it is true, people do tell me I think too much. I’ve also been thinking about the Seven Deadly sins, and have been planning an essay. I think all our current problems could be due to them. I’ve also been wondering about what our Seven Virtues might be.

    2. “by the year 2000, humans would average 7′ tall and be completely hairless”

      About getting old: I started developing a widow’s peak back in my twenties. That was dismaying, but no one ever even hinted that my legs might go bald as well… and as you say, we all seem to be expanding in a different dimension than height.

  2. I agree with you all the way through. I don’t know how you could ever (previously) have thought everybody should go to college, when it’s obvious that a high school diploma is a stretch for many.

    As for migrating to exoplanets (and deep space exploration in general): the problem is that humans have a tendency to get over-excited by amazing technological breakthroughs. There is a strong tendency to believe that if something near-miraculous is achieved, it’s only a matter of time before the next miracle comes, and then the next one, and the one after that. But it doesn’t work like that. In actual fact, there is an end to miracles.

    I’m old enough to remember the excitement when the US was preparing to place the first men on the moon. It seemed to be a given that Mars would follow quite rapidly after that; in fact, 1976 was widely mentioned as a possible date for the first manned Mars landing. Nobody seemed to focus, for very long, on the fact that Mars is over 200 times as far as the moon. The same unconscious error of scale applies to interstellar travel. We aren’t going to the stars. They’re too far.

    I used to pop in at Mike Brotherton’s blog, by the way. It’s a good one, but I think he scaled down the regularity of content at one stage.

    Lastly, if my parents ever thought I was going to have a better life than theirs, they had it wrong … but that’s another story, for another venue.

    1. Brotherton seems to have ended his blog in 2016 and moved to Facebook.

      The new thing is to wonder is if smart kids should go to college. Or if Ivy League or other big named schools are worth their tuition costs. We use college as an obstacle course to weed out the lazy and dumb to decide which people will get the better-paying jobs. But is that education really relevant to the jobs they get? I think society is going through the whole process of rethinking higher education, and even K-12.

    2. “We use college as an obstacle course to weed out the lazy and dumb”

      Less the lazy and dumb perhaps, so much as the non-compliant. And by “we” you mean the managerial and owning classes. Although these days it’s more likely just an algorithm rather than a person doing the sorting.

      I wasn’t surprised at all that we didn’t go to Mars. They didn’t follow the plan as laid out by Willy Ley and Walt Disney. Any SF child of the 50’s knows that we were supposed to build rotating space stations a la “2001” to serve as forward bases in space. Instead we jumped straight to the Moon, then fell back exhausted.

  3. I agree. It’s extremely unlikely we’ll move, as a species, from Earth; to me, a lot of the sci-fi notion of an ‘outward urge’ or other expansion, all fuelled by some yet undiscovered science, was an outgrowth of eighteenth and nineteenth century concepts of progressivism. As you say, the nature of humanity as a biological creature stands against the environments off Earth. I think Clarke’s ‘law’ was valid enough at the time, but times have moved on – what I am getting at is that there was a period in the mid-twentieth century when it appeared that technology was going to be able to validate imagination, and Clarke was countering those who scoffed at the notion. What actually happened was we hit the limits of physics well before the space voyaging of the imagination had been fulfilled. The actual direction technology has taken – to the micro-level, on Earth – was never particularly envisaged by most (although Clarke did, as a social exploration of what would happen if communication became essentially costless and global).

  4. I like the idea of figuring out how to live on earth. That might just be the first priority if we want to envision a possible existence beyond our biosphere. As for education. I think it is somewhat overrated in terms of a more ‘Fulfilling’ life (more consumption anyone?) Concerning our potential for exploring or even colonizing other worlds, it’s always an intriguing line of thought. I remember tuning into the original Star Trek series as a kid. One of the many aspects of the show that fascinated me most was how the script framed going here and there as a matter of routine like ferrying supplies to a large established colony or a diplomatic errand. As if transporting same in our present time. Could this actually be the future? Wow! Then we get older and bogged down.
    I’ve always been one of those folks ‘guilty’ of thinking too much. When I reached that age when confirmation into our local church was the next excepted step my mother was appalled when I hesitated to follow through. I let her know I would give it some thought, but of course I never did join the church, and religion became the object of historical research as an artifact of cultural expansion etc, etc…

    My sense on these maters noted in your article starts with what my belief system ‘tells’ me. That is; the future for humans will unfold in a manner determined precisely by the stream of causality that is our particular expanding universe. Since we are part of this universe the future awaits us.
    This ability of ours to speculate on the future from the experience of the past to me represents the downside of self-awareness
    I envy the bears in the woods they have no worries. Then again, I don’t think any of us would trade in our sometimes fitful existence for theirs 😊
    So here we are
    Now we are unique in that we have acquired this capacity of self awareness. This capacity also provides for the illusion of a present and the notion that we are able to act in a manner of our choosing by just ‘thinking’ about same, and therefore we can actually imagine and indeed shape the future in a manner to our liking.
    Well I don’t believe that’s the way things actually happen. It’s only my particular worldview but I must live with it none the less. You may have guessed by now and from previous posts that I’m a dyed in the wool free will skeptic.
    If we believe the physical universe is unfolding in a deterministic way, then all of the events that have occurred and have yet to occur are happening in a manner that requires no further explanation. The good, the bad and the indifferent. The only thing that matters is that we survive to reproduce. Now the downside of self awareness keeps clogging our sensory feedback loops (cognitive dissonance) with possibilities where none exist as there is only one possible outcome. Our virtual reality machine (the present, and free will) provides the lottery ticket we call hope to ease first the dread arising from the knowledge of our own mortality, and second the potential collective demise of our species (or is the other way around?) Meanwhile our virtual reality keeps generating solutions to problems that don’t exist in the real world.
    We have the capacity to imagine all possibilities. There is no intrinsic harm in that as long as our senses are grounded in some belief system that serves to manage those possibilities. Unfortunately, either due to some disease or physical trauma or even still, some intrinsic deficiency in the brains’ of some individuals we have an inability to manage at all. Those not afflicted can count their blessings that as confusing as our virtual reality is, we can at least speculate on what the future may hold for our individual and collective fate.
    It always strikes me how we can envision all manner of scenarios that may befall us and the species in general (not to mention the negative impact on our fellow species whose existence when boiled down, is the same game of life that we are in, further still the fate of our biosphere) that we can remain so optimistic at the same time (another sense arising from the instincts to survive?)

    Some view determinism as a step closer to nihilism. My view is that determinism is the philosophical tensor that balances the product of our self awareness (cognitive dissonance) with the certainty of the real universe.
    After all is it not certainty that we all crave? That instinct to survive in the face of uncertainty

    It’s time to relax and dream, the real world will take care of itself

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